Words by Anthony Osborn
Will Tasmania ever have an AFL team? It’s a question that has been in existence for as long as most can remember, yet it remains a question without a definite answer. So while we play the waiting game, what would a current team comprised solely of Tasmanians look like?
Tasmania has a rich history as a footballing state, with many AFL champions hailing from the state. From Ian Stewart to Darrel Baldock, Royce Hart to Peter Hudson, Matthew Richardson to Alastair Lynch and modern champions Grant Birchall and Jack Riewoldt, there is no doubting that Tasmania has consistently punched above its weight as a producer of elite VFL/AFL talent.
However, after no Tasmanian was drafted in the last national draft, some have begun to question the health of the sport in Tasmania. With the Tasmanian Football Foundation’s A Celebration of Tasmanian Football gala dinner earlier in May, and St Kilda champion Nick Riewoldt’s passionate plea for Tasmania to have its own AFL team, the notion of the AFL becoming a truly national competition through Tasmanian expansion, as well as the health of the sport in the state has been on the lips of almost every football pundit in the country in recent times.
However, the recent victory of the Tasmanian Under 18 Mariners side against the highly fancied South Australians and the even nature of the Tasmanian State League, indicates that the future of football in Tasmania is not as bleak as many have declared.
Exciting young players like Tarryn Thomas (North Launceston) and Zac Buechner (Clarence) indicate that the wealth of top-end Tasmanian talent will continue to grow as time progresses; while three of the AFL’s current senior coaches hail from Tasmania, with Brendon Bolton (Carlton), Rodney Eade (Gold Coast) and Chris Fagan (Brisbane), regarded as some of the best football brains in the business.
But if Tasmania were to field a ‘State of Origin’ side in 2017, what would it look like? Here is my selection for who would represent ‘the Map’ if state-based representative football returned to the national stage, or if Tasmania was to field an AFL team of solely local talent.
There is an abundance of quality Tasmanian defenders in the AFL at the moment, making the selection of the back six particularly gruelling.
Grant Birchall (from Devonport) is unquestionably a walk-up start, with his footballing resume of four premierships and All-Australian selection the stuff of dreams. Birchall was a crucial member of Hawthorn’s 2008, 2013, 2014 and 2015 premiership sides as a hard-running, polished defender, with his 243 career matches in the brown and gold guaranteeing him a place in the history books as not only a Hawthorn champion, but a Tasmanian one, too.
Jeremy Howe (Dodges Ferry/Hobart), although originally drafted to Melbourne, and then traded to Collingwood as a forward, has forged a fantastic career as a rebounding, attacking defender and would provide this Tasmanian side with drive, poise, class and an X-Factor that cannot be measured by statistics. Howe’s reputation as a spectacular mark and ability to play anywhere on the ground would make him one of this side’s most valuable assets.
The promising start to the careers of Saint Jimmy Webster (Glenorchy) and Sun Kade Kolodjashnij (Launceston) sees them lock down positions as medium defenders, as they too, are capable of not only shutting down their direct opponents, but also providing drive out of defence to architect attacking forays.
Colin Garland has been a wonderful servant of the Melbourne Football Club since making his debut in 2007, and his 141 games of experience would make the former North Hobart Demon a crucial member of this side.
Another North Hobart product, Henry Schade, would take the other key defensive position, with his 2017 form since joining Collingwood from the Gold Coast indicating that he has the potential to forge a long successful career as a key defensive pillar in the black and white.
Geelong has a distinct Tasmanian (and specifically, Launceston) flavour to its defensive group, with Jackson Thurlow and Jake Kolodjashnij both becoming crucial members to the Cats’ squad, and the promise they have shown in the early years of their respective careers sees them well and truly in the mix for this representative side.
The centre line is another tough selection decision, with several players putting their hands up for selection.
Maverick Weller (Burnie), a member of St Kilda’s leadership team in season 2017, is an essential member of the Saints side as a rotating forward and midfielder, and his tenacity at the football and ability to use the ball sees him find a place on the wing in this line-up.
Similarly, Brisbane’s Mitch Robinson, formerly of Carlton, the Tassie Devils and Lauderdale before that, has developed into a bullocking midfielder who can tag the opposition’s best player out of the game, while also accumulating plenty of the ball himself, while also having the potential to hit the scoreboard in a big way. Such attributes makes the hard-nosed ‘bull’ an essential pick as the centre-man in this side.
The other wing position may be viewed upon as a controversial selection, but it has gone to Nick Riewoldt. The St Kilda champion was born in Tasmania and considers himself a Tasmanian, despite not being a product of the Tasmanian football system. However, his CV and pride in being Tasmanian makes him arguably the most important player in this side. Riewoldt, who spent much of his career as a key forward, has reinvented himself as a hard-running wingman in recent seasons, and much like fellow Tasmanian and former Richmond great Matthew Richardson, has only improved with age with a positional shift. The 34-year-old is one of the most inspirational players in the competition and as a 6 times Best and Fairest and 5 times All-Australian Representative, Nick Riewoldt has produced one of the most illustrious careers imaginable across his 324 games to date.
The on-ball brigade sees three of the most in-form Tasmanians in the AFL donning the ‘map’, with Richmond’s Toby Nankervis (North Launceston) tasked with the ruck duties. Nankervis has been a revelation since being traded from Sydney, averaging 15 disposals and 26 hit-outs. ‘Nank’s capacity to move around the ground essentially makes him an extra midfielder, thereby further enhancing his importance and influence on this team.
Gold Coast’s Aaron Hall (Hobart) is also in scintillating form, averaging 27 disposals a game in season 2017 as he continues his ascension towards being one of the premier midfielders in the game. Hall has been in sparkling form across the past couple of AFL seasons, averaging 27 disposals in both 2016 and 2017, as well as 11 Brownlow votes in 2016. Hall’s 2017 season so far has been highlighted by a dashing performance in China where he amassed 37 disposals and eight tackles. This man is a ball-winning machine and a crucial cog in this representative side’s engine room.
Young Docker Lachie Weller (Burnie) finds himself as the rover in this side, as although much of his football in 2017 has been across halfback, he appears destined to become one of Fremantle’s ball-winners in the middle of the ground. Young Weller has a knack for accumulating the football and his clean foot skills would make him a difficult opponent for any opposition.
The forward-line of this Tasmanian representative side is a lively mix of experience and youth. Richmond champion Jack Riewoldt (Clarence) is a clear choice for centre-half-forward, with his standing as a dual All Australian, dual Coleman medallist and kicker of over 500 goals making him more than qualified to lead this young forward line.
North Melbourne’s Ben Brown (Glenorchy) is one of the most exciting young forwards in the competition, and the impact he has made in just 65 games indicates that he is going to be one of the best forwards in the game for a considerable period of time.
Sydney’s Robbie Fox (three games) and Fremantle’s Brady Grey (11 games) provide an X-Factor to this forward line, and although they are both still fresh in the AFL system, the two mature-aged midfielders from Burnie have both displayed ferocity for the ball and sublime skills that would make them valuable additions to the forward line of this representative side.
Similarly, Hugh Greenwood, a former Australian Boomer Basketball representative, has made a significant impact in the early part of his career, and his proven capacity to win the football and hit the scoreboard at both SANFL and AFL level puts him in the mix for this Tasmanian side.
Meanwhile, former Brisbane Lion and current Essendon Bomber Josh Green (Clarence) provides experience and skill to this raw forward-line, making the ‘mosquito-fleet’ of small forwards in this side all the more dangerous.
The abundance of Tasmanian talent means that some players were very stiff to not get selection in the starting 18, with the likes of Essendon ruckman Tom Bellchambers (Northern Bombers/Launceston), Geelong defenders Jake Kolodjashnij and Jackson Thurlow, and Gold Coast midfielder Jesse Lonergan (Launceston) all earning a spot on the bench in this side.
This selection process has resulted in this side:
Brisbane’s small defender Ryan Harwood, of Glenorchy, key defender Tim Mohr (of Launceston) and young Mitch Hibberd of North Melbourne (formerly Clarence) have all narrowly missed out on selection in the starting 22, and have therefore been named as emergencies.
Saint Eli Templeton, Blue Liam Jones and Hawk Kieran Lovell were all also close to selection in the side, while Tasmanian State League players like Jaye Bowden (Glenorchy), Lauderdale duo Dylan Fyfe and Thor Boscott and North Launceston duo Zac Burt and Jay Lockhart, although not considered, could push a case for selection in an extended squad.
What do you think? Did I get it right? What changes would you make and how do you think this side would fare against either AFL clubs or other state representative sides?